Now Reports

Sipping Shochu!

I had been interested in shochu since I first ventured out to a little izakaya in a dark backstreet of Chikushino one muggy night in September. I was planning to get my first taste of Japanese drinking culture with a few of my fellow fresh-off-the-plane gaijin. Admittedly, we weren’t expecting to get much beyond the names of a couple of decent beers or maybe trying a sake or two in a traditional-looking bar. But that night Japan had other plans.

With the Tom & Jerry cartoon on the top-corner portable TV barely into its second loop of the night, the beer had run dry. Even after a laudable effort on the part of one trusted regular who, at one point, slinked off all but unnoticed to a nearby supermarket to smuggle back another six bottles of Kirin. With ten under-inebriated gaijin facing her over the counter, improvising, the proprietor reloaded our glasses with what she and the smuggler assured us was the establishment’s finest “Kyushu Spirit”. Sipped at fearfully or knocked back in daring, the results on the faces of my friends told a mixed story. ‘It’s actually quite nice.’ said one mass of contorted features. ‘I don’t think I’ll be having any more.’ a semi-paralysed tongue laboured back. A few satisfied groans further down the bar signalled round two. Consensus had it that Kyushu Spirit – whatever it was – tasted a lot like a watered-down whisky. Clearly, we didn’t have a clue.

So when I stumbled across Fukuoka Now’s editor, Nick Szasz, at September’s Gaijin Idol and told him about my experience with this mysterious drink I was surprised to find out that whatever-it-was was actually called, shochu. And what’s more, it has a thriving industry centred on its home territory of Kyushu.

Relentless self-publicist, some weeks later I respond to an ad in Fukuoka Now’s classifieds appealing for cover models. Somehow sensing I was qualified, presumably by the zeal I’d shown for drinking in Japan that night at Gaijin Idol, Nick calls and suggests I should go shochu tasting and write it up for the magazine. I’m immediately seduced. The thought of qualified local stardom as the cover feature was already too much to resist. And free booze?

With my friend Adam, a veteran of the first izakaya incident, we head to a larger, more refined izakaya on a bright and chilly November afternoon. This time even less beer. We get straight to it with a fired-earth cup of crisp, clear shochu over a rough block of ice. I reach (it’s all I can do) for Western comparisons. A smooth vodka, ice-cold with the merest hint of flavour. Next stop a medium-sized shop with a helpful owner who guides us through shot after shot of Kagoshima’s finest.

We finish with the shoot over some delicious chicken, tofu and Spanish garlic shrimp in a restaurant-bar with a cool yet tasteful wooden interior. From the restaurant patio I gaze out across the river’s winter sunset and can’t help but think back to the first faulting steps I’d taken in the world of shochu with the accidental smuggler in Chikushino. I make a resolution: next time I see her and the beer’s running short she won’t have to nip round to the local supermarket. I’ll order some shochu, some Kyushu Spirit.

For those, like me, who have come to Japan carrying a heavy load of ignorance about shochu, the kind people at Fukuoka Now handily published a piece in 2003 with all you could possibly want to know about the topic. It’s updated, refurbished and republished below. Kampai!

So what exactly is this fire water?

Shochu is a type of distilled liquor with a light aftertaste. This makes it great for enjoying with meals, unlike whisky or brandy, which tend to be drunk after meals as a digestif. Shochu is usually drunk diluted with either hot or cold water, lowering the alcohol level to about the same as sake or wine. Singly-distilled shochu, in particular, allows drinkers to taste the flavor and character of the base ingredient. Those containing no added ingredients are known as honkaku shochu (“genuine shochu”). Although made throughout Kyushu, the base ingredient varies by region. Potato shochu (imojochu) originates from Kagoshima and the southern part of Miyazaki. The northern part of Miyazaki, meanwhile, produces rice shochu (komejochu), the mountainous region buckwheat shochu (sobajochu), and in the Amami region of Kagoshima you can find black sugar shochu (kokutojochu). Kumamoto is famous for the rice-based kumajochu, while Oita is the home of famous barley shochu brands such as Nikaido and Iichiko. Fukuoka mainly produces rice and barley shochu, but also the distinctive sesame shochu (gomajochu) Beniotome. Among the different varieties, potato shochu is by far the most popular, but all are worth a try. In Kyushu, all but the most expensive varieties are usually ordered by the bottle, which works out cheaper in the long run. Most bars will keep your bottle (around 900 ml) behind the bar ready for your next visit.

Sakuran’s humble unassuming exterior hides a gorgeous interior.
Takaki, Minami-ku, Fukuoka

Kahan Shuka Sakuran

Hidden away in a residential area along the Naka River, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Sakuran for a warehouse at first glance. Step inside, though, and find yourself stepping in to another world. The beautifully decorated interior calls to mind a luxurious courtesan’s quarters. 18 varieties of shochu are on offer, from cheaper brands such as Kurokirishima (¥450) to premium brands such as Morizo (¥1,500), Maoh (¥800) and Kameshizuku (¥5,000, served in a large pot). Managed by a seafood wholesalers, they also serve excellent and reasonably priced seafood, such as shrimps in garlic oil (¥580) and crab stew (¥1980 yen per person, minimum of 2 orders). The grilled chicken (¥480) and spicy tofu in chili oil also go great with a glass or two of shochu.


[address] 2-7-6 Takaki, Minami-ku, Fukuoka [ map ]
[phone] 092-481-7250
[business hour] 18:00 ~ 24:00, Fri. & Sat. ~ 3:00
[off] Undecided

This izakaya allows customers to purchase 1.8 liter bottles to keep behind the bar!
Tenya-machi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka

Shochu, Sakana Sasuke Hakata Honten

This izakaya is popular with both Japanese and non-Japanese people who are looking for great-tasting seafood and a wide variety of shochu. They stock more than 400 different types of shochu, including Morizo (¥1650) and Murasaki no Sekitoba (¥900). The rare, premium brands can be ordered by the glass, while bottles of regular brands can be kept behind the bar for as little as ¥3,980. Sasuke stays open ‘till 5:00am (3:00am on Sundays and holidays) and private rooms with karaoke are also available, making it a great spot for parties or just for a few after-hours drinks. The food is seasonal and includes beef stew (¥1,145 per person, minimum of 2 orders) as well as many dishes ideal for snacking on while drinking your shochu.

[address] 2-20 Tenyamachi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka [ map ]
[phone] 092-291-7171
[business hour] 17:00 ~ 5:00, Sun. & Hol. ~ 3:00
[off] Never

520 varieties specially selected by a shochu adviser.
Shirogane, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka

Shochu Bar Mogura

Formerly a pottery gallery, current owner Mr. Okuma (a good English speaker!) fell in love with the building so much that he took it over and 7 years ago converted it into a bar. The retro Showa era-style interior certainly adds to the ambience, but this is no novelty bar. Mr. Okuma is an SSI-certified “shochu adviser”, and he personally visited distillers and liquor traders in Kagoshima and Miyazaki to carefully select the approximately 520 varieties of shochu that he serves. The food, all made by Mr. Okuma, is also carefully selected to go well with shochu. “Potato, barley, rice… different types of shochu go well with different foods,” he says, “for example potato shochu goes well with cheese or full-flavored pork”. Sure enough, his menu includes pork pizza (¥780), alongside many other dishes such as spicy motsu nabe (¥980 per person, minimum of 2 orders), which is made with home-blended miso.

[address]1-11-25 Shirogane, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka [ map ]
[phone] 092-526-5791
[business hour] 19:00 ~ 2:00, Fri. & Sat ~ 3:00
[off] Uncertain

“800 Bottles of shochu on the wall, 800 bottles of…”
Watanabedori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka

Satuma Shochu-Gura Takumi

Opened in October, this shop sells Satsuma shochu, which is a honkaku shochu made only in Kagoshima using local sweet potatoes and water. The shop sells a total of 800 varieties of shochu, in bottles of all shapes and sizes, and also teapot-like traditional Kagoshima drinking vessels called kurojoka. Owner Mr. Takagawa is on hand to help you choose by providing friendly advice about the flavors and distilling methods of each brand, as well as fascinating facts about Kagoshima culture. If you still can’t make your mind up, you can even try samples of 10 different varieties in the shop’s tasting corner. Shochu-tasting events are also hosted here from time to time in cooperation with a Kagoshima shochu distillery. Check out the shop’s homepage for details of upcoming events and special offers.

[address] 1-11-11 Watanabedori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka [ map ]
[phone] 092-720-1991
[business hour] 10:00 ~ 21:00
[off] Never

Shochu Map 2010より大きな地図で Shochu Map 2010

より大きな地図で Shochu Map 2010 を表示

を表示EXTRA! – For more information on shochu read our text from a previous issue on shochu publish in Oct. 2006.

Kyushu’s Spirit – Shochu
Ask someone overseas what liquor they associate with Japan and odds are they’ll answer sake, or nihonshu in Japanese. One of the delightful discoveries awaiting people who come to Kyushu, however, is the locally produced shochu, which most natives would choose for a relaxing drink instead of a thimbleful of sake. Written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”, shochu has a long history, can be made from several different ingredients, and is drunk throughout the year in many ways and in a variety of settings. In that spirit, Fukuoka Now focuses this month on that quintessentially Kyushu drink, shochu!

Shochu vs. Sake
So what’s the difference between the two? Sake is a brewed beverage made from rice that, like beer, has been fermented and aged. Shochu is a distilled beverage, making it a kin of whiskey or vodka. It is unique among distilled beverages, however, because the production process combines the two conversion stages–from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol–which are usually separate. It is then aged, sometimes for as long as 10 years. While sake is brewed only from rice, shochu can be made from a cornucopia of ingredients, including sweet potatoes and barley.

There are two shochu classifications. The first is koshu (Grade A), which has been distilled several times. Multiple distillation smoothes out the rough spots, resulting in a beverage that is generally flavorless and odorless. Especially popular in Tokyo and points north, koshu is often sipped with an umeboshi or slice of lemon, but its most common usage is as the key ingredient in chuhai, a refreshing mixed drink consumed in large quantities in drinking establishments during the summer. It combines shochu, a fruit flavored sour mix, carbonated water, and ice. Commercially mixed chuhai can be purchased straight out of the cooler at liquor stores or convenience stores. Koshu is generally 70 proof.

Down south, however, and especially in Kyushu, people prefer the otsushu (Grade B) variety. This is distilled only once, allowing the drink to maintain the flavor and aroma of the original ingredients. It is often called honkaku, or authentic, shochu, because this is the original form of the beverage with a history dating back to the 13th or 14th Century. Depending on the ingredient and the distiller, authentic shochu ranges from 50 to 80 proof.

There are three theories about shochu’s origin and the route by which it came to Japan. It is generally agreed to have arrived here some 500 years ago, and it also was used as a medicinal disinfectant until the end of the Edo era. The most common explanation for its presence in Japan is that a primitive form of the drink originated in Thailand and was later brewed in the Okinawan islands, where it was called awamori, or millet brandy. Indeed, shochu consumption in Okinawa and Kagoshima Prefecture far outstrips that of sake, and it is not uncommon to find shochu drinkers there who have never tasted nihonshu.

Others think that shochu arrived from the mountainous regions of China by way of Shanghai. The third holds that it came from northern China through the Korean peninsula. Lending credence to this theory is the drink’s popularity in South Korea, where it is called soju and is the country’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. All Korean shochu is the koshu type and the leading brand, Jinro, can be purchased at liquor stores throughout Japan. But be warned–it’s meant to be drunk straight and is sold that way.
Whichever course the Shochu Road followed, authentic shochu in particular has been a favorite ever since it hit the shores of Kyushu. As with wine production, soil quality is an important factor in determining ingredient quality. Kyushu has long been noted for the exceptional quality of its shochu due to its superb environment with plenty of clean water and abundant agricultural products.

Not so long ago, however, many people looked down their nose at shochu, disdaining it as the drink of the working class–in short, your grandfather’s booze. The koshu variety ignited the first wave of shochu’s mass market popularity in Japan in the early to mid-80s, which coincided with a worldwide trend toward lighter liquors. During the period from 1980 to 1995, shochu consumption in Japan tripled.

The chaser came in 2000 with the renewed passion for authentic shochu. Those who once rolled their eyes at the mere mention of the drink finally discovered that the rich flavor of the ingredients in authentic shochu made for a tasty treat. Shochu consumption has spread rapidly throughout Kyushu and to the Tokyo area in the past few years, with Grade B shochu production in Japan climbing 7.5% in the year ending June 2003 and shipments of the sweet potato variety, favored in Kagoshima, soaring 17.2%. Imbibing shochu has now become respectable and it is no longer unusual to see fine brands of shochu listed on the menus at eating and drinking places.

Shochu’s surge
The primary reason behind shochu’s surge in popularity is that people have cottoned on to its great taste. Several other factors have boosted the growing appeal of the drink, however.

  1. A drink for all seasons: Shochu tastes great either warmed or chilled, making it a fine drink throughout the year.
  2. Low calorie content: A two-ounce serving of shochu contains about 35 calories. Some people think it has no calories at all, but that’s not strictly correct. There are two types of calories in an alcoholic drink. One kind is the calories from the ingredients, and the other kind is the calories from the alcohol. The calories from the ingredients accumulate in the body–that’s the reason some dedicated beer drinkers carry a spare tire around their waist. But the calories from the alcohol are immediately converted to heat and emitted, warming the drinker’s body. All of shochu’s calories are from the alcohol, so drinking it won’t cause you to put on the pounds. Just be careful not to eat too many snacks while you’re at it.
  3. Healthy: A Kurashiki University professor published an article in a British medical journal claiming that authentic shochu was effective for preventing thrombosis (hardening of the blood in the blood vessels). Others believe it will be shown to be effective for preventing heart attacks and diabetes, so perhaps those extra hours in an izaka-ya will lengthen your life span.
  4. Goes well with any food: Authentic shochu is made from different ingredients, each with its own distinctive characteristics. So, as is the case with wine, drinkers can make a selection to complement the cuisine, such as Western, Japanese, or Chinese food, and the occasion – whether drunk before or after dinner. Considering authentic shochu’s remarkable versatility, shochu consumption just might spread internationally. This is one boom unlikely to fizzle out soon and the drink is likely to increase in popularity among many different age groups in many regions.

The ingredients
One reason for authentic shochu’s growing appeal is the quality of the carefully selected ingredients. Maintaining the inherent flavor and aroma of the ingredients is an important factor that sets shochu apart from other liquors.

  • Sweet potatos: Shochu is the only commercial alcoholic beverage made from sweet potatoes. Production of sweet potato shochu climbed after the Second World War, when the shortages of rice and barley for food consumption led to their rationing, so distillers used satsumaimo to pick up the slack. To fully appreciate the distinctive aroma, flavor, and soft sweetness of sweet potato shochu, try it mixed with hot water, on the rocks, or straight. Tastes best in October and November. Primarily produced in Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures
  • Rice: Shochu made from rice, Japan’s staple food, is made throughout the country, but the best-known variety is Kuma shochu from the Hitoyoshi Basin in Kumamoto. If you want to enjoy its smooth fruity flavor, drink it on the rocks, straight, or mixed with warm water. Primarily produced in Kumamoto Prefecture, and throughout Japan
  • Barley: Shochu’s flavor is determined by whether one uses rice or barley for the malt. The barley from Oita Prefecture is very popular for its distinctive aroma, mild taste with no rough edges, and consistency during the process of converting the ingredients to malt. It is eminently drinkable either on the rocks or mixed with water. Primarily produced in Oita Prefecture, Nagasaki Prefecture (Iki Island), and Miyazaki Prefecture
  • Soba (Buckwheat): Soba shochu kicked off the trend for greater diversity in shochu ingredients. Younger drinkers prefer its simple taste, unique aroma, and hint of sweetness. It can be used for cocktails, mixed with hot water, or on the rocks. Primarily produced in Miyazaki Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture, and Hokkaido
  • Others: Many other ingredients are used to make shochu, including sesame, potatoes, and carrots. One unique variety is kasutori shochu, which is made with the sake lees left over from sake brewing. That’s why Fukuoka, where sake brewing thrives, is also the leading area for kasutori shochu production. Don’t pass up a chance to try this distinctive drink, with its fruity taste and exceptional aroma. Other types attracting attention are a variety of awamori in Okinawa made from Thai rice and the mellow sweetness of the brown sugar shochu made in the islands off Kagoshima Prefecture.

Down the hatch
People enjoy shochu in one of four primary ways–mixed with warm water, mixed with water, on the rocks, or straight. Since there is no single standard way to drink shochu, discovering your favorite variety and way of drinking it can be an enjoyable adventure. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Savor the aroma by mixing it with warm water
Fill a glass with warm water–make sure that it is not boiling water–and then pour in the shochu. Mixing with warm water has a double benefit: it heats the container and allows the water and the shochu to blend well, releasing its aroma. Warming the shochu itself further draws out the natural fragrance of the drink.

Bring out the sweetness by drinking it over ice
First-time tipplers may want to try shochu straight, if only to discover the drink’s inherent flavors. Drinking it on the rocks has the surprising effect of bringing out its sweetness. Using mineral water instead of tap water for the ice further enhances the flavor. You’ll taste the difference when the ice melts and mixes with the shochu.

The container
Shochu can be drunk in your container of choice, including an Arita ceramic cup, a baccarat glass, or an old jelly jar from the back of the cupboard. Folks down Kagoshima way use a special container called a kurojoka. This is designed to allow shochu to be poured in and heated. Drinking it warm brings out the drink’s finest qualities.

How Old Granddad Did It
Why not try the old-fashioned way of drinking shochu?
Step 1: Mix shochu and good water in a half-and-half mixture in a kurojoka if you have one. A ceramic container or PET bottle also can be used.
Step 2: Let it sit for a day or two.
Step 3: If it’s in a kurojoka, heat as it is. If not, put the mixture in a kobachi (a small bowl), and warm it by either heating the container in boiling water or heating it directly.
Step 4: Mix it well after it’s warmed.
This is sure to create a rich drink that goes down smoothly!

Shochu Glossary

Rokuyon: Some believe the optimum mixing ratio is six parts shochu and four parts water or hot water. This term comes from the Japanese words for the numbers six and four. Seven and three (shichisan) and five to five (gogo) also are used. It is not unusual, however, for people to use more water than shochu, particularly when mixing it with hot water.

Example sentence: Nomikata dou suru? Ja, rokuyon no o-yuwari de. (How will you drink it? I’ll have a six-to-four mixture using hot water.)

Gogobin Keep: Regular patrons at bars in Japan save money by buying a bottle for their exclusive use at that bar in the “keep” system, though not every drinking establishment does this. If you think you’re not up to downing a full issho bottle–1.8 liters, or almost half of a U.S. gallon–try a gogobin, which is just half that size. Not all shochu manufacturers use that bottle size, however.

Example sentence: O-nomimono ha? Iichiko no gogobin keepu de. Mizuwari setto (water and ice) mo ne. (What’ll it be? I’ll have the gogo-sized bottle of Iichiko and use it as a keep. Don’t forget the set-ups.)

Ki: Ki refers to shochu downed straight.

Example sentence: Hajimete nomuken, ki de nonde miyokaina. (This is my first glass of shochu, so maybe I’ll try it straight.)

Text by Nick Martindale

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn144, Dec. 2010)


Fukuoka City
Published: Dec 1, 2010 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017